An “All-Hands” style meeting was held in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Monday, overviewing the spaceport’s current and future initiatives. During the meeting, NASA leaders admitted continuing funding issues meant the Space Launch System (SLS) is still trying to work a manifest plan, with further uncertainty portrayed as to when a crewed mission will debut on the monster rocket.
The overview – presented by NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot and KSC Director Bob Cabana – was aimed at presenting employees with an update about the agency’s and center’s current and future initiatives.
Although the meeting wasn’t webcast, several employees that attended reported back that it included a number of hard truths.
One such example was an agency overview that spoke of NASA currently employing 14,500 civil servants and directly employed contractors. However, Software and IT makes about up about 3,200 of those employees, more than 20 percent of NASA’s workforce, with Aerosciences next in line at about 15 percent.
Less than 50 percent of NASA’s personnel are directly or indirectly involved with space flight, its primary field in the eye of the general public.
“It’s time for NASA to make decisions, not just collect more data,” was the call during the meeting.
The NASA workforce is also aging. Since 2006, the average age of NASA’s civil servant employees has gone up from 42 years old to 49 years old, the attendees were told.
To counter this trend, Mr. Lightfoot – the former leader of the Marshall Space Flight Center before his promotion to NASA Associate Administrator – has mandated at least half of the new NASA civil servant hires be at a pay grade of “GS-11 or below”, targeting new hires right out of college.
NASA’s funding was also claimed to be a continuing issue, with those in attendance told that NASA’s budget – in terms of “real money purchasing power” – is now at the lowest level since 1961. This is despite Congress upping the NASA Budget for FY2016 by over one billion dollars because “added content” to NASA’s 2016 “to do list” is estimated to be in the region of around three billion dollars.
A large segment of the funding is going towards the development of the Space Launch System, a rocket that will be mated inside the VAB where the meeting took place.
While the rocket’s development is proceeding far smoother than the previous flagship rocket – Ares I – SLS is still without a confirmed manifest past its initial test mission in 2018, known as Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1).
Numerous planning manifests have been created, although the public has only the been provided with the vague soundbite of “visiting an asteroid by the mid 2020s and Mars by the mid 2030s” – which continues to portray a future that lacks definition.
Internally, a huge amount of work is continuing to take place on providing SLS with Design Reference Missions (DRMs). However, those are only for planning purposes and the outlook continues to change, resulting in uncertainty.
Numerous factors are to blame, with funding once again mentioned as an issue during the KSC meeting – citing SLS is “lacking booked missions at this time due to tight funding.”
Another consideration is the move to the more powerful – and far more useful – Upper Stage for SLS.
SLS will debut as the Block 1 “basic model”, sporting a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS), renamed the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion System (ICPS) for SLS.
Its goal is to loft an uncrewed Orion around the Moon, a test flight that will be used to validate the rocket and spacecraft systems for what was supposed to be a repeat mission, this time with a crew, known as EM-2 in 2021.
The plan was to use that DCSS stage for EM-2, prior to moving to the EUS (Exploration Upper Stage) – also to be built by Boeing – that will become the workhorse for SLS.
More recently, NASA made no secret of its wish to move to the EUS as soon as possible. During the KSC meeting, managers noted that move is now targeting the second flight of SLS.
That results in another problem, where that second flight won’t be able to launch a crew, as the new EUS would require a validation flight before crew are allowed to fly with it due to safety considerations.
Although officials have deflected questions relating to the requirement of flying the new stage on an uncrewed mission first, this issue surrounding the switch of Upper Stages has already been pointed out several times by NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP).
The KSC meeting appeared to confirm this requirement, claiming the second flight would now be a cargo mission, before claiming they hope it will involve launching the spacecraft planned to investigate Europa. However, that mission is still in the very early stages of evaluation, with SLS yet to be confirmed as the launch vehicle of choice.
While the plan to move to the EUS by the second flight will benefit SLS in the long run, it would result in the first crewed mission moving to at least the third flight of SLS.
That mission would likely become the repeat of EM-1, with a crew, prior to the fourth flight becoming the mission to send a crew to investigate a captured asteroid.
That mission is part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that involves two missions, opening with a robotic mission heading out and capturing an asteroid boulder, sending it into a Lunar orbit, ahead of the crewed mission arriving for a hands-on investigation.
Such a slip would go some way to confirm the fears such a mission won’t occur prior to 2024.
While that still works within the political language of conducting such a mission “by the mid-2020s”, an awkward political situation – with a new administration in charge next year – is the fear of workers reporting back from the KSC meeting.
New political masters will be confronted with a multi-billion dollar rocket that won’t be launching NASA astronauts until around 2022/23, unless the plan changes once again, with at least another six years until it becomes its fully evolved Block 2 configuration required for missions to Mars – with human landings on the Red Planet now expected to be aiming for 2039.
Also notable – though understandably not referenced at the KSC meeting – is SpaceX’s plan to have its BFR – a reusable booster with the power of two Saturn Vs – already up and running by the 2020s, ahead of MCT (Mars Colonial Transporter) missions.
SpaceX has consistently refused to compare its rocket plans to SLS, not least because NASA is a customer and partner to the company, as opposed to a competitor.
NASA’s leadership has already stated SLS “requires a repetitive launch cadence”, launching at least once per year, as a “necessary” requirement.
It is likely – based on the comments from the KSC meeting – NASA will require a large influx of money to fund payloads that will allow SLS to achieve such a goal, a requirement that could prove to be unsavory at best for a new administration.
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